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An Interview with Kamal Salibi
Professor Emeritus of History

In a conversation with Professor Emeritus Kamal Salibi, May Farah probes into the noted historian’s thoughts on his scholarship, AUB, and his time at AUB.

From the balcony of Kamal Salibi’s sixth floor apartment in Ras Beirut there is a view, somewhat obstructed, but nevertheless plainly visible, of the American University of Beirut. The view and the “across the street” proximity are fitting for a man who has spent the better part of his life dedicated to the institution he calls “unique.” Making good use of his location, the professor emeritus and prolific author continues to visit the campus and his cherished Department of History frequently.
Salibi, who has already published more than sixteen books and countless articles, takes an afternoon break from his latest research on the modern history of Lebanon in preparation for his next book to share his thoughts on the more than half century connection he has maintained with AUB.

When did you arrive at AUB?
In 1938 I joined International College (IC), the elementary school that was associated with AUB in those days, and then went on to AUB and graduated in 1949 with a BA in history and political science and as the first in my class.
I taught in the preparatory section of IC for a year and at the same time began my graduate studies. Then I went to England, where I earned my PhD in Middle Eastern history at the University of London.
When did you start teaching at AUB?
I received my degree in 1953 and returned from London that same summer and immediately began teaching at AUB. I first taught in the Political Science Department, and then in 1954 I also began to teach in the History Department. In 1955 I became an assistant professor of history, then an associate professor in 1960, and finally a full professor in 1965.


What is the biggest change you noticed at AUB?
AUB has always been a unique, high-quality university. I enjoyed teaching every generation of students that enrolled in my classes. The students, it seemed at the time, were extremely interested in being at AUB and in learning about the changes affecting their lives. During the 1950s and 1960s, and even in the years before, when I was a student, there was a lot of political activity on campus. AUB was considered the barometer by which you could measure what was going on in the country and in the region. That political activity, which climaxed in the 1960s and 1970s, ended with the sit-ins and strikes and the expulsion of over 100 students. Then during the civil war, there was little political activity. The campus was quiet.


What do you think your students remember most about your classes?
I’m not really sure; you should probably ask my students. But, I taught history and I always tried to make the connection between history and geography. I tried to link a story with the location. So I guess my students would remember how I would draw a free-hand map on the board. Then, I would point to the various places as I talked, so they could follow my story.


Are you still in touch with your former students?

Yes, many stop by to see me or we talk via e-mail. I stay in touch as well with those who are now academics; and when we meet, we sometimes talk shop. Some are already grandmothers and grandfathers.

 



When did you leave AUB?
I stopped teaching in 1997 and am now professor emeritus. But I still visit the campus and go by the department at least twice a week.


Tell me about what you’re working on now.

I’m doing research on the modern history of twentieth-century Lebanon, which I hope will become my next book. I’m writing in Arabic. I write in both Arabic and English with equal facility, but I’m beginning to enjoy writing in Arabic more. The first article I ever published was in French.


Have you noticed a change in your views over the years?
Sometimes I read things that I wrote a while back, and I’m surprised by what I knew then. Some of what I said may be considered wrong now, and some has changed slightly. But you have to consider the context; I believe that what I wrote was right for the period in which it was written.
I enjoy the process of distilling thoughts once I’ve read or done the research. That process is the most challenging part of it all, and it sometimes takes a long time. I write and rewrite until I’m vaguely satisfied with what I’ve said. But I don’t put a time limit on it. When it’s ready, it’s ready.


Of the countless books and articles you’ve written, are there any that stand out in your mind? Do you have any favorites? Which have been the most controversial?
The book that received the most prizes was The Bible Came from Arabia (1985). Then there were a couple of books that were very well received and well reviewed, like The Modern History of Jordan (1993) and The House of Many Mansions (1988). The one that I particularly enjoyed writing was Crossroads to Civil War in Lebanon (1976). I surveyed the first two years of the civil war at the time it was happening. It was published during the war, and reached a worldwide audience. I also enjoyed writing Who Was Jesus? (1989).
All my work on the bible book was negatively received by biblical scholars because of the different interpretations I introduced. But, I stand by what I wrote. There was also the Historicity of Biblical Israel, a seminar course that I taught at Smith College in 1993–94 and then at AUB before turning it into a book.
Whatever I say in my most recent books may be a little different than what I said earlier, but I stand by them all. They were written in the context of that specific period.


What impact has AUB had on your life?
As I said before, AUB is a unique university. It didn’t have an impact on me; it’s part of me. It is an exceptional experience for anybody who has ever been there, whether as a student or teacher. There is hardly any university in the world that has such a varied faculty, where civilized conversation on all subjects can go on.